Will we triumph in the war on plastics?

Slaughterhouses around the country report many cases of plastic bags being found in animals’ stomachs

Dandora dumping site on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. PHOTO| REUTERS| THOMAS MUKOYA 

IN SUMMARY

  • The bags were wreaking havoc on the country’s environment. They had become an unruly monstrosity that stared at Kenyans almost anywhere.
  • The introduction of plastics in Kenya in the 1960s as a simple solution for packaging turned into a costly undertaking. Plastics have become the biggest challenge to solid waste management.
  • The question on many people’s lips is; is banning plastic bags the solution or should we be talking about the challenge on waste management in general?

  • The drive towards a region free of plastic bags is also being championed by the East African Legislative Assembly, which is collecting views from member states on a Bill.

The problem has exploded lately amid a historic surge in plastic pollution, forming giant garbage patches almost anywhere.

Polythene bags have become ubiquitous in Kenya. They hang on trees, trenches while rivers, dams, lakes and seas flood with them.

Landfills bursting at the seams seemed to grow skywards every waking moment, the winds ever so blithely unhesitating to blow them to undecided destinations.

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The bags were wreaking havoc on the country’s environment. They had become an unruly monstrosity that stared at Kenyans almost anywhere.

They were blamed for many maladies. Plastic bags take between 500 to 1,000 years to break down.

But even then, for their excellent fitness for use and low price, polythene bags have become woven into the fabric of our lives. For close to 50 years, plastic bags have become an important feature of the packaging industry worldwide.

But for all the great service plastic has given us, disposing of the products — particularly those designed to be used only once, such as packaging — has become an environmental issue.

Joseph Maina, a garbage collector, points at a pile of plastic waste which was meant for recycling, left at the Dandora Dump Site. The ban on plastic has left most garbage collectors with tonnes of plastics meant for recycling with nowhere to take them. PHOTO| FRANCIS NDERITU 

According to a report by the National Environmental Complaints Committee released early this year, 24 million plastic bags were being used in Kenya every month.

Some 20 per cent of the waste generated in Nairobi, the report showed, consists of plastic bags. In total, plastic materials constitute 80 per cent of solid waste.

Supermarkets were cited as the biggest distributors of plastics, averaging 100 million bags every year.

In one of the world’s toughest sets of laws aimed at reducing plastic pollution, Kenyans producing, importing, selling or even using the bags risk up to four years in jail or fines of between Sh2 million and Sh4 million.

The ban covers carrier bags commonly given for free by retail stores and flat bags mainly used in the Kadogo (small-scale) economy.

August 28 was the last day for using polythene bags in the country.

Kenyans have largely stayed away from the bags from then. The reason could be the fear of punishment. 

Yet when Environment and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu gave the notice to ban the polythene bags, giving manufacturers and dealers six months to exhaust their stocks on February 28, it seemed an impossible odyssey.

“The introduction of plastics in Kenya in the 1960s as a simple solution for packaging turned into a costly undertaking. Plastics have become the biggest challenge to solid waste management,” the minister said during a public forum at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, Nairobi.

DEATH BY PLASTIC

Banning the bags had been tried twice before in the last decade. Discussions on the prohibition started 15 years ago. 

So it was also expected that manufacturers and importers of plastic bags would brew trouble.

Manufacturers argued that more than 70,000 jobs would be lost if they closed shop.

Importers and Kenya Association of Manufacturers separately went to court in an attempt to block the decree.

The High Court defended the decision to ban plastics on account of conserving the environment. When all else had failed, they tried prodding the ministry for extension and exemptions.

A woman carrying her shopping in an eco-friendly bag in Nakuru town. PHOTO| SILA KIPLAGAT 

However, the government and the National Environment Management Authority were resolute about enforcing the ban.

Indeed, not a day goes by without some new sort of reminder of what great a cost this commodity of convenience comes at: toxic waste sites, choking drainage lines and others.

The bags have been blamed for cholera outbreaks due to overflows emanating from blocked sewer pipes.

“Our waters especially, have been seriously affected by polythene bags,” Prof Wakhungu said.

According to Director of Ecosystems Division at the United Nations Environment Programme Mette Løyche Wilkie, turtles are the sea animals most affected by the polythene bag menace.

Apparently, the endangered animals are devouring more plastic than before, a new study revealed, with the problem more pronounced among the young.

“Because they bear a striking resemblance to jellyfish in water, plastic bags confuse hungry turtles. Yet the problem is expected to grow if not stopped,” Wilkie said.

She told the same forum that research had suggested that there would be more plastics than sea-life in the world’s water bodies.

The researchers’ findings may look and sound exaggerated but stories coming out of seas and oceans are just as foreboding.  

The largest of sea mammals have not been spared of the polythene malaise either. In June, Norwegian researchers were shocked when they found more than 30 bags and other plastic waste in the stomach of a whale.

The story of the whale was both interesting and sad.

Lily Makena shopping at a Zucchini outlet in Garden City Shopping mall packing groceries in environmental friendly bags. PHOTO| KANYIRI WAHITO 

The animal swam to the shores of Bergen on a cold morning. Wardens tried shooing it off the shores into the deep waters but it was back soon.
When they realised that the giant mammal was in too poor a condition to swim away and was going to die painfully in the shallow waters anyway, they took the decision to take it down.

A post mortem examination on the whale revealed plastics in the stomach.

Researches said they suspected the plastics prevented food from being digested, leading to starvation. An almost similar case was reported in Australia in 2015.

Research on micro-plastic pollution in African waters remains scanty. Only a handful of studies regarding the extent of plastic pollution in our waters exists.

In a recent study conducted on the southern shores of Lake Victoria in Mwanza region, Tanzania, gastrointestinal tracts of Nile perch and tilapia were confirmed to have 20 per cent of micro-plastic.

It is estimated that there are 100 million tonnes of plastics in the world oceans.

“At least eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every year. That is like a rubbish truck of waste emptying into the ocean per minute,” Wilkie said.

This indigestible, potentially fatal diet has also become popular on land, especially with cattle.

Recent data from abattoirs shocked Kenyans. It indicated that at least one case per day of animals with plastics in their digestive systems is reported from every major slaughterhouse.

A case of a slaughtered cow with an average of 2.5 kilogrammes of plastics waste in its rumen, broadcast by a national TV channel shocked many.

A study by the Unep in August found that 15 per cent of cows slaughtered in Nairobi have plastics in their stomachs. For Kakamega County, it is 30 to 40 per cent of the animals slaughtered.

Scientists say dozens of plastic toxins accumulate in the bodies of meat lovers over time and could be a long-term health risk.

While there is no consensus yet on the effects, preliminary research indicates that plastic poisoning can lead to cancer, birth defects, immune system suppression and developmental problems in children.

Ingestion of plastic can cause toxic chemicals such as phthalates — a plasticiser that affects the hormonal system — to leach into the animal and subsequently to meat lovers.

It is probably these revelations that made the government take a tough stance even as the grappling and battles between it and plastic manufacturers and distributors played out behind closed doors.   

“Our resolve to ban polythene bags is informed by scientific evidence of the negative effects of the same,” Prof Wakhungu said.

“They include the inability to decompose, the negative aesthetic cost from littering, blockage of sewerage and water drainage infrastructure, pollution of marine environment and death of livestock and wildlife due to consumption.”

According to the minister, the solution to the problem lies with us.

“It has to do with changing our supply chains around packaging, how we use packaging and how we take care of it,” she said.

LASTING SOLUTION IN BASKETS

The government hopes this will be the start of a new regime in which the culture of carrying own long-life bags is inculcated in Kenyans.

It hopes to purge the single-use packaging and poor disposal practices.

“Our objective is not for Kenyans to continue relying on the bags dished at retail outlets because those too are not long-lasting and will end up polluting the environment. Our aim is for them to take up the habit of having durable carriers like baskets and kiondos,” Nema Director-General Geoffrey Wahungu has said in many forums.  

Now Kenyans who lack own-carrier bags have to buy non-woven ones at the supermarket.

This provides a great opportunity for alternatives, especially from the cottage industry.
Nairobi hosted a three-day exhibition on eco-friendly alternatives to polythene bags at the KICC in the run-up to the ban.

“The government will incentivise industries, women and youth groups to produce eco-friendly alternatives to plastic bags that are an eyesore,” Prof Wakhungu told exhibitors and those who attended the fair.

She added that she hoped the ban would be a new dawn that would awaken the consciousness of Kenyans where the environment was concerned.

“The polythene bag ban has awakened very healthy debate on solid waste management,” she said, adding that the decision was part of Kenya’s environment management strategy.

Retain Trade Association of Kenya (Retrak) chief executive Wambui Mbarire said already Tuskys and Naivas supermarkets had taken up women’s groups in Naivasha and Nyandarua to make kiondos “which will then be sold to the public at a subsidised price, as their community social responsibility”.

Some customers carrying their shopping from a supermarket in Nakuru. The plastic bags ban has been effected with most residents using eco-friendly bags. PHOTO| SILA KIPLAGAT 

According to environmental agencies, plastic bags have become the biggest challenge to solid waste management.

General waste management practices by Kenyans have been blamed for this.

The question on many people’s lips is; is banning plastic bags the solution or should we be talking about the challenge on waste management in general?

KAM sectors manager Samuel Matonda who has been at the forefront of fighting the ban said he wondered why the ministry and Nema weren’t pursuing other alternatives to the ban like comprehensive waste management approaches.

“So much is going to be lost in investment. Why not engage in alternatives like recycling?” he asked during a stakeholder engagement at the height of the debates on the ban.

Ideally, plastic is recyclable but that is not happening.

It is much more expensive to recycle plastics than to produce from petroleum by-products. 

Biodegradables that mimic plastics made out of plants have their drawbacks too.

Many people have argued that there may not be enough arable land to produce the vegetables and starch carriers for them when the world desperately needs food.  

TRADERS, MANUFACTURERS AND POLITICIANS HAVE RESISTED SIMILAR ATTEMPTS IN PAST

The attempts in 2005, 2007 and 2011 to ban plastic bags were less ambitious. They failed due to a lack of consistent follow-up on the implementation plan.

In 2005, the ban was on bags less than 30 microns thick. There was a levy to be imposed on thicker ones. The ban aimed at reducing the use of polythene and providing funds for alternative, more environmentally-friendly, carriers such as cotton or sisal bags. The Mwai Kibaki administration 10-point plan aimed at addressing plastic waste did not make much headway. A recycling firm created soon ran into headwinds.

The ban in use of plastic bags in 2007 and 2011 mainly focused on reducing the thickness of the bags to 30 and 60 microns.

In 2007, Finance Minister Amos Kimunya outlawed the manufacture of plastic bags less than 30microns and introduced a 120 per cent excise duty on them. It also proved to be a hollow threat. Traders protested and threatened to pass on the extra cost of making thicker polythene to the consumer.

Politicians, amid suspicion they had been financially induced by the manufacturers to shout down the ban, influenced the collapse of the plan.

In 2011, Nema banned polythene bags of thickness below 60 microns and tasked the Kenya Bureau of Standards to execute it. Like the others before, it backfired.

Attempts by the Nairobi, Meru and Kisii county governments to ban plastic bags have also failed.

The drive towards a region free of plastic bags is also being championed by the East African Legislative Assembly, which is collecting views from member states on a Bill. Attempts by Uganda and Tanzania to ban polythene bags have failed.

Just as tremendously as Kenya’s previous ones failed.

Kenya joins a small club of three other countries that have successfully outlawed plastic carrier bags on the continent, including Rwanda, Mauritania and Eritrea.

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